From writer/director John Swab, the indie drama Body Brokers follows a junkie named Utah (Jack Kilmer) who, along with his girlfriend Opal (Alice Englert), crosses paths with Wood (Michael K. Williams), a mysterious man that convinces him to go into treatment at a rehab facility in Los Angeles. While there, he quickly learns that the process is less about helping people and more about a multi-billion dollar fraud operation that enlists addicts to recruit other addicts, in order to keep the money flowing.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Williams talked about how unaware he was about the capitalistic mentality that exists in rehabilitation centers, why he was initially hesitant about signing on for this project, why it’s important for him to find empathy and compassion in a story, and the magic that came from sharing scenes with Jack Kilmer. He also talked about working on Lovecraft Country and whether he feels there will be a second season, as well as his early career as a dancer and whether he’d sign on for a dance-heavy project in the future.
COLLIDER: We hear a lot about addiction and the recovery process, but this was like a whole other angle that I hadn’t ever heard of before. When the script for Body Brokers came your way, what was your reaction to it?
MICHAEL K. WILLIAMS: I was completely ignorant to the capitalistic mentality that exists in the rehabilitation centers for recovery. I was a bit taken back and like, “Wow, when you look up taking advantage of someone when they’re vulnerable, this storyline is the poster child for that,” in my opinion. That was my first reaction. From the outside looking in, most people in the world of recovery believe that, once people put down the drug, everything should go back to being hunky-dory, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The drug is not the problem. The drug is merely a symptom of the problem. So, in my opinion, Wood gives us a holistic, voyeuristic view of what someone looks like, even in recovery. The insanity doesn’t go away, just because a person puts the narcotic, the drink or the drug down, and Wood was a perfect example of that.
At this point in your life and career, where is your bar set? When you read a script, can you see potential, even if it’s not fully on the page? Do you know pretty quickly, whether you could bring something to a role?
WILLIAMS: My bar is pretty simple – I look for truth and I look for comparisons and parallels to my life. Those are the first two things that I look for. Does this ring true to me? I look for things like compassion and empathy. It can be dark. There are gray areas in all personalities. The things I look for, as a character, and the characters that have chosen me, are ways where I can bring empathy and compassion. I may not agree with his lifestyle, but there’s gotta be something there for me to bring empathy and compassion to understand why these people do the things that they do. For me, that lies in truth. If the world was created truthfully, those things will be right there. So, those are the things that I look for.
How much were you able to play with this character, add things to him, and find your own groove with him? Was all of that on the page, or did he feel like someone that you could play with?
WILLIAMS: First of all, John Swab, who was the writer and director, is brilliant, in my opinion. There was really nothing to fix. The world was laid out quite accurately. I will tell you that the secret sauce for Body Brokers was, for me, Jack Kilmer. That kid is brilliant. What a pure vessel. He brought this level of vulnerability to Utah. He brought such a vulnerability and honesty to it that he made my job very easy. I just looked forward to going to work and playing with him in these scenes. That’s where the magic was for me. But John Swab’s level of research that he did for this world was immaculate. There was nothing to fix or change or add, in my opinion.
Since it sounds like this story came from a personal place for John Swab, were you also able to use him as a resource for any questions that you had?
WILLIAMS: I stayed away from that, honestly. His level of research and the amount of honesty that he had put on the page, there was no need to ask any questions. Humanity, empathy and honesty were all there. There was nothing to really ask him about. And once Jack and I got in our zone, that’s where the magic was for me.
I also really loved watching your work and Lovecraft Country. That show did some really fascinating work, over the season.
WILLIAMS: Thank you.
Obviously, the burning question that everyone wants to know is, are we going to get more? Do you think we’ll ultimately get a Season 2, or would you be okay if there were just one season of that show, if Misha Green doesn’t come up with something that she feels does the world and the characters justice?
WILLIAMS: Whatever the outcome will be, I’ll have to be all right with it because I have no bearing on that aspect of the world, but I feel very hopeful that there will be a Season 2. I know that show took a lot out of me, so I can only imagine what the writers must have gone through for three years. I came in for eight or nine months, and that was the final part of the process for that. In all actuality, Lovecraft Country took about three years to get it to the point where they were ready for the actors to come on set. It’s heavy stuff. It’s heavy lifting and a lot of that lifting is done in the writers’ room. I do believe that there will be a Season 2, but when? Who knows.
The first season fully adapted the novel, even though it had its own spin, but the second season would be without a book. Does that excite you even more, that it would be an open slate?
WILLIAMS: Yeah, it is exciting, honestly, because it’s a reveal. It’s a big surprise. I guess I can speak for my castmates, we’re like, “What are you gonna do now?” We don’t know. It’s exciting to wonder what they’re conjuring up in the writers’ room. It’s very exciting.
You started your career as a dancer. Do you ever miss those days, or are you glad those days are behind you?
WILLIAMS: Well, I still dance, just not for professional reasons. Music and dance will always be a part of my soul. I need it. I feed off of it. In the context of your question, yes, I do miss being on stage. One of my biggest tours was with a recording artist named Crystal Waters. I remember one day, we were performing at a club in Washington, D.C. and it was 4th of July weekend and “100% Pure Love” was hot in the streets. When that beat dropped, the roar of the crowd was so loud that it overtook the monitors and we couldn’t hear. There’s no amount of money that can buy that amount of electricity and human connection from being on stage. There’s something about that, that I will always miss.
Dancers are treated better now, but back then, you had to do it for the love of it because it wasn’t for the money.
WILLIAMS: I look back, as a kid from the Projects in Brooklyn, and the seven to eight years that I did dance, I made decent money. I’m hoping that the kids now are more organized and have unions and agents and health benefits. I would hope that, for the new dancers that are on the scene now. We didn’t have those types of things going on. But I have a lot of peers that I remember from back then, that I worked with, who were smart to save their money and are real estate owners today. There are people who stuck with it and learned the business aspect of it. It’s not show business, it’s the business of entertainment, and I know artists dancers who learned that early on in their career and are now choreographing movies and big Super Bowl commercials and things of that nature. A dancer’s life is short-lived and it’s hard, and it’s definitely a labor of love, but I look back on my dance years fondly. I’m proud of them.
Would you ever want to do a more dance-heavy role, in the future?
WILLIAMS: Absolutely. If the role called for it, I wouldn’t blink. I wouldn’t think twice. I would jump at it. If everything aligned and dance was a part of it, I would do that in a heartbeat.
In a business that I would imagine has likely tried to stereotype you, at different points in your career, you’ve continued to play these complex and complicated characters in interesting stories about a wide variety of subjects. Since you really only have say over the opportunities that are in front of you, as an actor, how have you felt about the path that your career has taken? Does it feel like there are genres that you’d still love to work in, or do you feel pretty satisfied with the areas that you’ve played in?
WILLIAMS: The answer would be yes and yes. Yes, there are other genres, other than what I’m known for. I would love to do a buddy of buddy dramedy, opposite someone like Katt Williams. I’d play brothers with DMX. I’d do a rom-com with Lupita Nyong’o. Who wouldn’t wanna cuddle with that young lady? However, I love the path that my career has taken. To speak to that stereotype word, I decided to not acknowledge that. I decided to not let Hollywood depict these characters and my career as being stereotyped. I grew up in the neighborhood and the community that a lot of these characters come from, so I wore that as a huge responsibility and a badge of honor, to be given the opportunity to be a voice in the arts for my community. I saw the process of how people end up in bad decision-making. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “I wanna have a career that gets me in trouble, lands me in prison, or gets me dead.” That’s not a decision that people make lightly. People make those decisions out of desperation and feeling like they have no other choice. I’ve been witness to that, my entire life. I have people in my family that I’ve seen with their back against the wall like that. That’s where my responsibility to bring empathy and dignity to my characters comes from.
Body Brokers is now available on digital and on-demand.
In space, no one can hear you… party?
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